As Sydney’s LGBTI community prepares to march through the city streets to celebrate Mardi Gras, former Les Girls showgirl Colleen Windsor reflects on the ‘T’ in our rainbow acronym and how far we’ve come.
We have been there from the beginning.
As some of the early trans showgirls, we were a staple in Sydney’s gay scene, our names forever linked to the nightclubs of the time.
I remember as a performer at Les Girls we would occasionally take our show out to RSLs in the western suburbs, arriving in our minibus before falling out onto the main street and heading to the venue.
Much like that scene at Broken Hill in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it was safety in numbers.
The culture we had in Sydney is one I haven’t seen elsewhere, beginning with an explosion of bars and clubs on the golden mile of Oxford Street in the late seventies.
It brought trans showgirls and drag queens together as part of one unified rainbow family, and the entertainment they provided was fundamental to what ultimately christened ‘gay Sydney’.
However, it wasn’t until the eighties when the trans community – not including us showgirls – truly began to develop.
Tiresias House, which is now the Gender Centre, opened back then and created the policy and advocacy programs that would become the foundation for what we see today.
Amongst some of the more creative Mardi Gras parades of the time, Tiresias House had the first ever trans float, making headlines in all media outlets and helping to add the ‘T’ to our rainbow alphabet.
Our community at the time wasn’t really that visible, aside from a small scattering of agitated activists who fought for our early hard-won rights, both within the LGBTI community and mainstream society.
For the past four decades the trans community has grown and changed, thanks to the many tireless advocates within it.
In 2013, the Mardi Gras board announced the formation of the Trans and Gender Diverse (TGD) Working Group, whose primary aim was to increase visibility and greater trans inclusion within the festival.
This was before the ‘transgender tipping point’, when trans advocates with high profiles around the world helped to herald a new level of visibility, and an important juncture in Mardi Gras’ community balance.
To complement this shift, the TGD working group presented a series of gender trailblazer events, and brought important discussions to the community by influential leaders such as Professor Stephen Whittle OBE, Calpernia Addams, Cate McGregor, and Chaz Bono.
Amidst all of this, a longtime acquaintance of mine, Peta Friend, invited six local trans women of all ages to lunch in one afternoon in 2015. She had had an idea brewing in her mind to create a social support group for trans men and women within Sydney.
“I felt inspired to create something within the trans community where trans men and women could come together have some fun, share their stories, and support each other,” Peta said at the time.
By the end of that lunch, Trans Sydney Pride (TSP) was born.
Something as large scale as TSP couldn’t have been conceivable four decades ago, which was still very much an oppressive and ignorant time.
To be trans was often to be seen as a freak and came with all the dangers and fears of an unaccepting public.
I’m pleased the visibility of today offers our young people something so different.
Roughly 800 people are now members of TSP, which has successfully integrated itself into Sydney’s community.
We have a closed Facebook group where information and support is shared. We hold social gatherings for our members, joined the Mardi Gras parade last year, and produced the recent Transgender Day Of Remembrance candlelight vigil.
A concept we’re perhaps most proud of is our Trans Stories brand, an event where ordinary trans people share stories of what it is like to live a trans life.
We’ve presented this event for two years as part of the Sydney Pride Festival and taken it into the world of corporate LGBTI networks.
With Mardi Gras’ 40th anniversary around the corner, there’s a deep sense of nostalgia hanging over those of us of a certain age.
On social media I’m seeing many of my peers celebrate such an important time in our history. They’re recalling their favourite parties and their favourite stars, those that have stayed in memory and stood the test of time.
There’s no doubt about it – the trans showgirls of the late seventies and eighties were a significant ingredient in making Mardi Gras as wonderful as it has been.
For this year’s festival, we’ll be bringing our Trans Stories event to an unforgettable Queer Thinking co-presentation with Mardi Gras.
The event will host a diverse range of trans people sharing their personal truth and inner-worlds in an evening of storytelling.
With speakers traversing the four decades of Mardi Gras, they will tell anecdotes that range from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, exploring our community’s history and its unique perception of the world.
It’s vital that our community understands the glamour, the battles, the pain, the resilience, and the love that have formed the trans community in Australia.
We’ve come a long way from those early days at Les Girls. Where our stages once were limited to gay nightclubs and bars, they are now around the country and available for us to stand on and tell our stories.
The ‘T’ in Sydney’s LGBTI community feels more inclusive than ever.
Trans Stories, 40 Years will take place on Saturday 24 February at Carriageworks. For more information and to buy tickets visit: www.mardigras.org.au/events/trans-stories-40-years.